A night with the Valley’s COVID-19 casualties

Juan Lopez in his Cadillac Escalade transports a body to Rivera Funeral Home on Saturday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — Juan Lopez sat behind the wheel of a Crown Victoria in the parking lot of Rivera Funeral Home on July 25, puffing on a Marlboro Red and waiting for a funeral procession to line up behind him.

There weren’t many cars in the procession when it got lined up. Funerals haven’t been allowed to be very big since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Hurricane Hanna had rolled in to the north, but Lopez, 45, wasn’t very concerned. It hadn’t even started raining yet.

Lopez flicked on his lights when the hearse pulled up behind him, turning onto the road to block traffic. He drove aggressively, moving up and down the line of cars in the procession to barricade intersections and cut off frontage roads.

He roared down the freeway, exiting it and cutting through traffic till he’d guided the procession to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Mission, lingering just long enough for a group of mask-clad pallbearers to disembark and start unloading a casket before he zipped back toward the funeral home with the other escort car.

Lopez, whose main job is to transport corpses, moved fast because he’s never been busier. He couldn’t remember how many bodies he moved the month before. He can’t even remember how many he moved the week before.

He does know it’s an awful lot more than the number he’d pick up in a normal year.

“This week was bad,” Lopez said, back at the funeral home puffing on another cigarette.

It had started to rain and Lopez stepped into the office to take a break. He gets a bottle of water and reclines on a gaudy purple couch. The day was a little slow, so he was taking advantage of it.

Lopez called a friend to gossip. The friend’s got disturbing news: there’s a family in Mission saying that the funeral home who was caring for their loved one can’t find the body. Lopez’s eyes widened.

“That’s crazy,” he said.

Someone else called not long after, interrupting the other call to ask for rates on cremations.

Tiene COVID?” Lopez asked.

Si ,” the other guy said.

Lopez gives the guy a quote and hangs up.

A little later, he FaceTimes his daughter. His grandson’s also on the other end of the line.

“Papa! Papa! I missed you,” the boy yelled.

“Hey Papa! Hey Papi,” Lopez shouted back, smiling.

They chat for a bit.

Lopez has been in the body moving business for 20 years. The son of a migrant from Mexico City, he moved to the U.S. when he was 14. His father was a hard worker, holding several jobs at once to provide for his family, and Lopez inherited that trait. He hustles.

Lopez is sincerely passionate about his job, and it shows. It seems like he’s always busy and in a perpetually good mood, despite his morbid occupation. He thinks it’s important to give people dignity in death, to help families when they need it the most.

Lopez loves what he does, but he doesn’t love it quite as much during the pandemic.

“I love my job, I can’t complain. But now with the COVID, I don’t think so,” he laughed.

Lopez left the couch after he finished talking with his daughter, stepping outside to look for Valentine.

Valentine Cervantez, who Lopez used to work for, is outside sanitizing the back of the Cadillac Escalade Lopez uses to transport bodies. Cervantez has mostly retired from the body moving business, but he still pitches in when Lopez needs the help, abandoning both his job doing electrical work in the industrial chicken-coop-building business and his preferred pastime of fishing for catfish near his home in Louisiana.

“He’s like my brother, we get along real good,” Lopez said. “Every time I need him here, he comes down and helps me.”

Lopez is afraid this time he may need Valentine for weeks.

The two run an errand that afternoon to pick up a check Lopez is owed by a funeral home, cruising down the road listening to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Lopez stops in front of a house and walks in, coming back after 10 minutes or so.

“It’s the daughter, she’s running the business,” he said, tucking the check in his pocket. “The parents have COVID.”

There haven’t been any bodies to pick up yet, so Lopez decides they should just wait for the call at home. They talk about the weather a bit on their way back. It’s raining again, harder this time.

Lopez wasn’t too worried about the hurricane. Valentine hadn’t even known there was one coming.

Valentine Cervantez pushes a gurney carrying a COVID-19 casualty into the morgue of Rivera Funeral Home on July 25 in McAllen. (Matt Wilson | The Monitor)

‘DON’T WORRY, I’M ON MY WAY’

Lopez got his first call that evening around 9 p.m. A man had died of natural causes, the police told him. Lopez was wearing a black leather jacket now, chatting with Valentine as they drove to the address. The rain was falling in sheets and the wind was howling

Lopez says he’d mentioned the weather when he got the call about the body.

“Are you crazy,” Lopez says he asked. “You trying to kill me?”

Lopez says he laughed with the operator before saying he’d be there shortly: “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m on my way.’ No matter what time it is or what’s going on, I have to pick up the bodies.”

There are several cars parked outside the house and down the street when Lopez and Cervantez arrive, enough cars to make up a whole family. There’s a police car in the driveway too. Lopez pulls his car past the rest, gets out, and walks up to investigate.

He comes back after a few minutes, saying the situation’s changed.

“It’s COVID,” he says. “The granddaughter has it and she passed it to him.”

Lopez backs his car up to the garage.

He and Cervantez get out and begin donning their hazmat suits, putting on plastic latex gloves and face shields. They’ve got masks on already.

Lopez takes it a step further, sliding out of his wingtips and into some black rubber boots. He changes faster than his partner. He’s had more practice, after all.

Both men liberally spray their suits with disinfectant before rolling the gurney out of the Cadillac and into the home.

The house has chipped paint and patches on the wall. Rough in parts and in need of repair, but it’s clean for the most part.

To get to the dead man’s room, the men roll the gurney through the living room and the kitchen.

The kitchen is cluttered with the sort of stuff you’d find in any grandparent’s home: cans of soup and vegetables, a Crockpot, an apron hung on the wall. There’s a pencil sharpener on the counter, a ceramic goose that’s placed on a shelf too high to use for anything you might need frequently. A large unopened sack of Styrofoam plates the dead man would never get to eat off of.

Lopez turns off the fans as he goes, momentarily plunging the room into darkness as he fumbles for the right switch. He thinks running the fans circulates the virus, so he likes to shut them all off as he walks in to retrieve a corpse.

Lopez finds the right switch and waits for it to stop turning before he pushes the gurney into the bedroom.

The dead man is huddled there in his blankets, just through the kitchen, mouth slightly agape. He’s an older man — frail, small and shrunken, looking sad and alone.

There’s a walker by the head of his bed, an old black and white wedding photo near the foot.

A woman whimpers in some other part of the house, her voice quivering softly as Lopez and Cervantez position the gurney in the kitchen.

The men work quickly and quietly. They wrap the man in his blankets, then in a body bag, then in another body bag. They spray the bags and themselves liberally with disinfectant, changing gloves every time they finish another layer.

They put the man on the gurney, strap him down and gently push him out through the kitchen, into the living room, then the garage, ushering him with a little clank out of his home for the last time and into the back of Lopez’s Cadillac.

The man’s family stand in the storm several feet away, watching Lopez and Cervantez from the shadows.

The men get back into the car and Lopez starts filling out paperwork. It’s quiet for a bit.

Lopez sneezes.

“Get the spray,” Cervantez jokes.

They’re back to themselves again, chattering away.

‘…THEY’RE PEOPLE’

Hurricane Hanna hit McAllen with her full force while Lopez and Valentine got back to the funeral home. Power lines were starting to fall and streetlights were failing. Lopez passed one traffic light that had been bent perpendicular to itself by the wind.

He pulled into Rivera Funeral Home through the gale, backing up to a door at the building’s rear. A transformer popped not far off as Lopez got out.

Lopez held the door open while Valentine unloaded the gurney and pushed it in, out of the rain, into the building’s morgue.

There were 15 bodies visible in the room, laid out on gurneys and shelves and stretchers that were sat atop a counter running alongside one wall.

The new arrival brought the congregation to 16, and Lopez and Valentine carefully wheeled the gurney in and pushed it into a gap between two other corpses.

“This is nothing,” Lopez said, unbuckling the straps on the gurney. “You don’t want to see it. There’s other ones that are bad. They have them on the floor.”

If alive, there would have been enough people in the room to fill up a church pew. They were, in fact, the type of people you would expect to see sitting in a church pew: older folks, grandmothers and grandfathers, with one or two exceptions.

A few of them were still tucked in body bags; others were naked. One man was wearing his Sunday best, ready for his funeral. They all lay there under the harsh fluorescent lights in the still, quiet morgue, tucked away from the storm raging outside.

“All of them, they’re COVID,” Lopez said.

Outside, in the rain, the engine in a refrigerated trailer hummed along steadily under the sound of the storm. Lopez said there were another 40 bodies tucked in there.

“If you’ve got a trailer, it’s because you’re going to take care of the bodies, not just throw them on the floor,” Lopez said, finished now with the straps on the new arrival.

There were at least 66 bodies at just this one funeral home. If the ones in the morgue could fill a pew, the ones in the trailer out back would be enough people to fill a small church.

Juan Lopez and Valentine Cervantez prepare to transport the body of a man who died with COVID-19 on July 25. (Matt Wilson | The Monitor)

Lopez looked sad and listless for the first time all day in the morgue. He looked distracted and tired. He paused for a moment on his way out, stopping to look down at a body lying near the door.

“This is my cousin,” he said. “That’s the only thing I don’t like about my job. You don’t ever know when you’re going to get a family member.”

Ignacio Moreno, Lopez’s cousin, was in his 60s and had died a few days earlier after being infected with COVID-19, Lopez said. He said he picked Moreno’s body up from the Valley hospital he died in.

According to Lopez, Moreno’s body was laid on a stretcher on the floor, and a security guard kicked the stretcher and said “it’s this one” after he’d led Lopez to the body.

Lopez cussed at the man.

“He’s my cousin, why do you kick him,” he asked.

Lopez said he filed a complaint with the hospital, likely the most he can do, but the incident clearly left a man who has seen all manner of carnage in the course of picking up thousands of bodies over the past two decades angry and disturbed.

That behavior, that callous disregard for the dead, seems to have shocked Lopez just as much as the ghastly number of bodies he’s moved in a month of caring for the Valley’s pandemic dead.

“That’s the way you treat people, like that? They’re not animals,” he said, still talking about that security guard. “They’re people.”

Lopez said he and Cervantez have remained busy since then, often working till 3 or 4 a.m. despite COVID-19 fatalities decreasing somewhat in Hidalgo County in the last few days.

The Monitor printed three full pages of 12 obituaries and 104 death notices Friday. None of them mention COVID-19, but it’s a record number. The list of names runs from Arce to Zuniga alphabetically, from the age of an infant to 94.

On the same date, Aug. 7, last year, The Monitor ran a single-page of five obituaries and nine death notices.

Friday’s decedents hailed from Rio Grande City and from La Villa, from Edinburg, Pharr, Alamo and Donna, from Mission, McAllen, Mercedes, Weslaco, San Juan and Palm View. They hailed from Edcouch, Olmito, Palmhurst and Corpus Christi, from all the way up in Loan Oak, to the east of Dallas, and Alvin, just south of Houston.

The ones whose families paid for a longer obituary were remembered for their love of family and friends, their skills in the kitchen, their adventurous nature and their generous wisdom. The rest were surely remembered just as intensely.